An exclusive interview with Olivia Lum, Executive Chairman and Group CEO of Hyflux
Olivia Lum is the Executive Chairman and Group Chief Executive Officer of the Hyflux Group. Ms Lum founded Hyflux in 1989, and for more than 25 years, she has been the driving force behind Hyflux’s growth and business expansion, and is responsible for policy and strategy formulation as well as its corporate direction.
It had been a tough road to success. Ms Lum was adopted at birth and due to difficulties early on in life, she had to earn her own pocket money by selling fruits, sandwiches, ice cream and jeans in school as well as weaving rattan bags and playing the clarinet in funeral processions. Her experience trained her well to be an entrepreneur for the next phases of life. She started her corporate life as a chemist with Glaxo Pharmaceutical and saw how companies faced numerous challenges treating the wastewater from their production processes. From there, she realised that there was a market for treating wastewater, in the face of increasing urbanisation and industrialisation worldwide. Ms Lum then started her business by offering her services as sales agent for large water companies and moved on to water recycling in Singapore with a small membrane-based pilot project in 1992.
2001 was a landmark year for Hyflux when it was awarded the first municipal water treatment project in Singapore to supply and install process equipment for the nation’s first NEWater plant in Bedok. In the same year, Hyflux also earned the honour of being the first water treatment company to be listed on Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) secondary board, and in 2003, the Group moved over to the SGX mainboard. Since then, Hyflux has won several major deals, including the building of Singapore’s first seawater desalination project in Tuas.
Taking on a very hands-on approach, Ms Lum is involved in the day-to-day operations of the company, and imparts an energetic culture stemming from her entrepreneurial roots. She encourages a “can-do” spirit, as well as an emphasis on innovation, which features in how Hyflux develops its technology, approach to projects, finance, build and operate its plants and in every aspect of the business.
How big is the company?
Hyflux employs more than 2,800 employees worldwide, and marks infrastructure projects across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
What makes it different from competitors?
As one of the few vertically-integrated water companies, Hyflux is unique in its ability to offer integrated services across the entire water value chain. As an owner of proprietary membrane technology, system designer, EPC contractor, asset owner and plant operator, Hyflux brings to the table its unique understanding of the technology and market to better serve its clients’ needs and offer cost-competitive solutions. Hyflux is also well-equipped to manage municipalities’ shift towards Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP), given its expertise in structuring project financing.
Describe the company’s recent achievements, breakthroughs or successful “iconic” projects.
Some of Hyflux’s landmark projects include Asia’s first integrated water and power plant in Singapore, Tuaspring Integrated Water and Power Project, and one of the world’s largest seawater reverse osmosis desalination plant in Algeria, Magtaa Desalination Plant. The group has also expanded its offerings to include power generation and waste-to-energy.
The TuasOne project will be Singapore’s largest waste-to-energy plant. It will have a capacity to incinerate 3,600 tonnes of waste and generate 120MW of electricity per day. It will also be the most land-efficient, sitting on 4.8 hectares of land. Construction work has commenced in early 2016 and expected to end in 2019.
In 2015, Hyflux entered the healthcare and wellness industry with the introduction of ELO Water, a special oxygen-rich water based on over 10 years of research in water science and technology. ELO Water is created through a revolutionary proprietary technology that allows a high level of oxygen to exist in a unique, stable and bound form that is believed to allow quick absorption by the body, restoring its natural balance and enhancing health and overall well-being. ELO Water is available in a variety of products- ELO Drinking Water, an ELO skincare range and also ELO Lab sessions.
What are the latest innovations that you are currently working on?
Hyflux has been researching into how water can be harnessed to improve health, beyond quenching one’s thirst. With aging and illnesses, our bodies may not be able to transport oxygen optimally to our organs and tissues, a condition known as hypoxia. More serious conditions caused by hypoxia such as diabetes, psoriasis and even cancer may then develop.
We believe ELO Water has the potential to help people address hypoxia concerns. Tests on lab mice injected with human prostate cancer cells independently conducted by Australia’s Monash University have shown that the mice fed with ELO Water were found with significantly smaller cancer tumours than the control mice drinking tap water. Clinical trials with Singapore Changi General Hospital to establish the effectiveness of ELO Water and ELO Gel on diabetic patients are currently in progress.
Separately, ELO Gel has also successfully concluded a clinical study with Dermapro Skin Research Centre in Seoul, Korea, a clinical trial institute specialising in the evaluation of safety and efficacy testing of cosmetics, cosmeceuticals, and nutraceuticals on human skin. The clinical study confirmed the efficacy of ELO Gel on skin wrinkle, colour, elasticity, hydration and radiance on human skin.
What are the future expansion plans of the company?
We believe the ELO business holds a lot of potential. We see an increasing demand for science-backed alternative and complementary healthcare solutions. Hyflux is opening its second flagship ELO Lab (for bath therapy) in Singapore in third quarter 2017 to cater to more local as well as international clients seeking ELO bath therapy. We are also looking to expand the ELO line of products and extend the ELO business overseas within the coming year. For example, in early 2017, we obtained the license to export ELO Water into China.
TRENDS IN ECONOMIC, PRODUCT & INDUSTRY
What will the water industry look like 10 years from now?
Current R&D trends around the world in water treatment focus on new generation of membranes and achieving lower energy consumption. Hyflux is partnering with Nanyang Environment and Water Research Institute (NEWRI) on cutting-edge development of biomimetic membranes. Such collaborations leverage Hyflux’s capabilities and resources in scaling up emerging technologies for commercialisation.
The trend towards environmental regulation is also starting to take shape, with many municipalities looking closely into regulating industrial waste discharge. Being a fully-integrated solutions provider, Hyflux is able to provide solutions at every point of the entire water value chain.
The growing importance of resource optimisation in today’s urban cities also underscores the need for sustainable and innovative solutions for the long-term, over 10 years and more. To meet these evolving needs, Hyflux has reinvented itself over the years from a pure water company to one with an expanded portfolio in power, including waste to energy, and continues to be committed to providing innovative and effective environmental solutions.
Is technology an enemy or ally?
To us, technology has always been an ally. We are always on the lookout for new technologies that can provide synergies with our current businesses and help us stay ahead of the competition. As one of the pioneers in membrane-based water solutions, we are recognised for our proprietary Kristal ultrafiltration (UF) membranes, which is one of the few UF membrane products to receive certification under NSF (National Sanitation Foundation). We also adopt an open innovative approach to R&D, where we seek to tap on potential research institutes and start-up companies. An example is the latest agreement to collaborate with NEWRI mentioned above.
SOCIAL IMPACT & CSR
Describe the CSR philosophy of the company?
Hyflux is committed to achieving business excellence while maintaining good social and environmental performance. The Group believes in delivering sustainable long-term returns, and it is fundamental that we focus on developing our people and making a positive impact on the community. Over the years, Hyflux has contributed towards various CSR programmes in Singapore and the region. Activities range from donation drives, educational scholarships, to contributing to clean drinking water access for developing communities overseas.
A recent CSR initiative in environmental conservation saw Hyflux leveraging on our technical expertise in water filtration technologies and partnering Wildlife Reserves Singapore in their Go Green for Wildlife campaign. Hyflux developed and installed customised potable water dispensers at the Singapore Zoo to encourage park guests to use refillable bottles. The aim was to reduce generation of plastic waste from single-use bottles and educate the public on recycling.
Moving forward, Hyflux will continue to engage the community, and at the same time taking a long-term strategic CSR approach towards improving health with water. With Singapore’s aging population and holding the title of 2nd highest proportion of diabetics, we will possibly explore our CSR direction in such areas.
Hyflux made its first foray into wildlife projects in 1999, when it designed and built a wastewater recycling system for the Singapore Jurong Bird Park, which supplied clean water for the penguin enclosure. The system used membranes that were produced in-house by the R&D team; the first generation of Hyflux’s award-winning proprietary Kristal® hollow-fibre ultrafiltration (UF) membranes.